Sunday, March 17, 2013

I heard yesterday that Mr. Phillips died on March 13, at the age of 84.  When I heard the news, I cried steadily for half an hour, and am crying again now as I write this.  Mr. Phillips was, outside of my mother and father, perhaps the single person I most respected; he influenced the direction of my life disproportionately.  He was more than simply a high school science teacher, he was a role model in life, a mentor, and a very good friend.  I will miss his quiet voice, warm smile and the light in his eyes, almost conspiratorial with some shared humor but never smug or excluding, until the end of my days.

Jack Phillips was the Williamson High School biology, advanced biology, and physiology teacher during my days as a student.  But that is like saying Magic Johnson was a basketball player -- it is a simple fact, but gives you no insight into his accomplishments, let alone deeper into the person.  This essay won't be able to do him justice, either, but I hope it will give some measure of the man.

Mr. Phillips believed in the intelligence, curiosity and maturity of the students (sometimes in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary).  He treated us all like we wanted to be treated -- like adults.  He found ways to make difficult concepts accessible and lively, even taking us to his farm to study the plants there.

I developed a deep bond with him.  Even as a young student, I would go to his classroom during lunch breaks, before or after school, and knock on his door.  He would always open it with a welcoming smile. We would sit and talk, sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for an hour.  He would show me experiments he was setting up for class, and even ask me to help.  Sometimes my best friend, Michael Hensley, would go with me, sometimes I went alone.

Mr. Phillips had been in the Navy for a number of years before coming back to Williamson and becoming a teacher, so he knew much about the world, had been many places and seen many things.  We shared books and magazines -- usually serious, sometimes humorous, sometimes banal -- and video tapes of Nova and Cosmos episodes.  These conversations almost always began with some relationship to science, but no topic was off limits, and we covered much of life.

These visits continued even after I graduated from high school, though they gradually tailed off over the years.  Mr. Phillips moved from educating the students to educating the educators, and I would visit his office at the Board of Education.  Michael and I would also drive up to his farm, twenty minutes up the river, and drop in unexpectedly, on a weekend afternoon or even a weekday evening.  If he was home, I can't remember ever being turned away.  Mrs. Phillips would ply us with lemonade and we would sit and talk, on the back porch on warm days, inside the house evenings or if the weather was either too hot or too cold.  Sometimes we repaid the intrusion by helping in minor ways with farmwork, but most often we just chatted.

His stories of growing up on the farm were wry, often hilarious. Perhaps our favorite was the story of tearing down the barn.  His grandmother (if I recall correctly) had an old barn that was falling down, and she wanted it removed.  Jack and his cousins offered to do it.  Of course, they didn't tell her that they had found a box of dynamite, abandoned by miners or the railroad.  They knew enough about dynamite to know how to set it off, and enough to stay well clear, but not enough to know how much to use, so they used it all.  The explosion not only succeeded in demolishing the barn (to the point where there were few pieces even worth picking up), it blew windows out at the main house, and the chickens that had been quietly going about their business in the yard made themselves very scarce.  After their own ears stopped ringing, the kids had to round the chickens back up, who refused to lay for some time afterward.

More than a talker, though, he was an extraordinary listener.  He weighed everything you said, correcting gently when necessary, but always making you feel that your opinions and ideas were valued.  I strive (but often fail) to emulate his approach.

I can only remember him getting something like angry once.  We were at his house, playing Trivial Pursuit (whether the Phillipses owned it, or Michael and I brought it with us, I don't recall).  Mr. Phillips kept trying for the Science questions, and kept getting questions like, "If you were born on March 18, what is your astrological sign?" His annoyance with such un-scientific claptrap in the science category was palpable.

It was Mr. Phillips's sincere interest in me and his sterling role model that gave me the confidence to pursue a career in science and engineering.  My parents, especially my father, were always supportive of my interest in the sciences, taking me to Saturday morning science classes when I was young, subscribing to magazines, talking about it, taking us to see solar eclipses and space launches.  But without Mr. Phillips's steady presence at just the time I was figuring out who I was, and applying to colleges, I might have drifted off into some other field.  He helped me make the right choices in life, first with his advice and incisive questions, later as a presence in my mind.

I don't mean to slight the contributions of my other mentors.  I have had half a dozen older mentors, at least as many peers, and many wonderful teachers who changed the direction of my life.  I owe them all a debt I can never repay.  But Mr. Phillips was there at the right time to guide me.  He was perhaps the first outside of my parents to take me seriously and treat me like an intellectual peer and colleague, if a young and naive one, rather than just a student to be trained.

I think the last time I saw him, my older daughter was a toddler, so it must have been a dozen years ago.  We were visiting my parents, and on a whim I picked up the phone and called.  He was actually living down by the Tennessee border by then, but by coincidence happened to be up at the farm doing some maintenance.  My wife, daughter and I drove up, and had a wonderful chat with him.  I remember we talked about Japan quite a bit (although we were still living in California at the time), though I don't recall any of the details.  I'm not sure I ever even told him that I am now a professor at a university, which I think would have made him proud.

He was loved by all of the students of my generation.  Teachers of his caliber are rare.  So are human beings.  His passing saddens me, but if the measure of value of a life is its impact on others, he made the world a far better place.  I can only hope that I pass on to my own students some of the same intellectual and personal traits.

I'm sorry I'm not there today with you.  My love to Mrs. Phillips and